April 09, 2017

Segers and Seurat at The Met

Print enthusiasts have a lot to be happy about this spring with the magnificent exhibition "The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers" now on view at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.  While Hercules Segers (1590-1638) may not be a household name even among specialists in the field, he was greatly admired by none other than Rembrandt (who owned a number of Segers's works in his own collection) and is considered one of the most experimental and original practitioners of the craft.

Hercules Segers, "Still Life with Books", c. 1618-22
Counterproof (?) of a line etching printed in
blue-green on cotton with a cream colored ground

Segers was an anomaly in several respects.  A member of the artists' guild in Haarlem, Segers worked there and later in Amsterdam as a print maker, painter and also an art dealer.  He was one of the first artists to depict a still life in European graphic art (see above) and he is credited with developing the technique of "sugar-biting", now known as aquatint in print making.  Probably most importantly was Segers's unique approach to print making as another form of painting rather than as a means of producing a number of identical images.  To this end, he experimented with papers, cloths, and methods, sometimes etching several plates for a single image, so that, though similar, no two pieces were exactly alike.  For example, take a look at these five variations of "Valley with a River and a Town with Four Towers" done circa 1626-27.  Each is basically the same composition but due to differences in the support (cloth or paper), ground color (grey-green, yellow-grey, cream, brown-grey), printing ink (blue, black, dark green) and hand-applied enhancements, each is a unique piece.





While Hercules Segers's name may be doomed to obscurity, his influence on the history of graphic art is profound and this exhibition is a well deserved homage to this important artist.

On a more popular note is the concurrent exhibition "Seurat's Circus Sideshow" centered around The Met's marvelous painting of the same name "Circus Sideshow (Parade de cirque)" by pointillist painter Georges Seurat (1859-1891).

Many 19th and 20th century artists were captivated by the circus and explored the spectacle's sociological narrative with a mixture of fascination and revulsion.  Seurat's look specifically at the sideshow, the lead-in to the main event, exhibits the same intrigue but with the added anticipation factor - the promise of what is to come.

Seurat was not alone in this obsession with the tease, and this exhibition presents, in a circular gallery setting (much like the ring at the circus), a selection of works on the theme by himself and his contemporaries.  Like the circus and its patrons, the pieces on display range from publicity posters to oil paintings, spanning the spectrum from common to highbrow.

Colorful publicity posters invite us to enter the magical world behind the curtain like this 1897 lithograph by Georges Redon...

A more sinister view is this etching by Marcel Roux taken from "Danse Macabre", 1905, entitled "The Fair:  Those Death Takes by Surprise"...

Seurat's genius with conté crayon on paper is revealed in these precursor to "Circus Sideshow" depicting two clowns in "Sidewalk Show (Une Parade)",  1883-84...
A rather brutal glimpse into the life of a sideshow performer is seen here in Gabriel Boutet's 1885 oil painting "The Fair at Montrouge"...

While Pierre Bonnard offers a more humorous vision as this clown seems to tiptoe off the stage in "Fairground Sideshow (Parade)", an oil on cardboard done in 1892...

Though Seurat's "Circus Sideshow" is a study in elegance and stillness, it was perhaps not the most accurate description of the world of the parade.  Here, in the massive mural "Grimaces and Misery - The Saltimbanques" by Fernand Pelez, we see a more realistic depiction of life as an itinerant entertainer.

Despite the dark undercurrents, the color and excitement of the circus and its sideshow have an enduring appeal - maybe not to artists but to the general public who are flocking to this exhibition like it's the "greatest show on earth"!